Friday, December 5, 2008

Angler vs. Backseat

"Angler" is Vice President Dick Cheney's current Secret Service codename. (It is also the title of Bart Gelman's new book on Cheney.)

When he was Chief-of-Staff to Gerald Ford, his codename was "Backseat." His background -- a staffer at the highest level -- has given him an unprecedented ability to manipulate the White House staffing process. And his unprecedented access to a President who disdains details (according to Gelman's account.)

"Backseat" spent his formative years learning the ways of bureaucratic Washington: major policy decisions effected well below the "principal" (cabinet) or "POTUS" (Presidential) level; controlling a meeting by controlling the agenda; inserting allies throughout government to insure timely information is being reported back; and 'reaching down' through the layers of government to see real, raw information -- direct and unfiltered. (This last modus operandi was not limited to Iraqi or al Queda intelligence.)

As "Angler", Cheney was able to taking staffing to the next level. Unlike staff -- or even Cabinet principals -- the vice president cannot be fired. Further, Cheney scheduled regular lunches with 43, without any other staff; such unfettered access is the holy grail of White House personnel.

As "Angler", Cheney also removed himself -- and his thinking -- from political calculations. Gellman shows only one example of politics playing a role in Cheney's actions, and even that -- the use of the Klamath River for irrigation -- was more by accident. Cheney's Western-sensibility, and instinctive opposition to federal governmental intervention, ended up being good local politics in Oregon. But such political ramifications were by accident -- Gellman makes it clear that the politics were often the last thing from Cheney's mind.

Perhaps it is this element of "Angler" that is most interesting and surprising. For a person a heartbeat away from the peak of political power, Vice President Cheney seemingly spends no time thinking about politics. Indeed, highly political initiatives -- like funding for faith-based programs or No Child Left Behind -- are ignored by "Angler." The ultimate political insider has been transformed into a constitutional officer who rarely, if ever, considers grubby day-to-day politics.

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